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Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Transfiguration

Second Sunday of Lent: The Transfiguration

Lent: February 24

The gospel selection for the Second Sunday of Lent focuses appropriately on the fascinating and significant mystery of the Lord’s Transfiguration. It is a mystery of particular importance because it is the only episode in all of the gospels wherein the divinity of Jesus shines forth in all of its splendor and glory.

While all of the synoptic writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke recount this mystery and its basic elements, Luke’s account relates two important elements of the story not mentioned in the other gospels. The first is the fact that it is during His prayer that Jesus is transformed into glory. It is in His profound communication and communion with the Father that Jesus’ humanity shines like the sun. Perhaps this is a reminder to us that we truly share in the divine in our authentic prayer. Secondly, Luke alone recounts the topic about which Moses and Elijah were speaking in their conversation with Jesus ­ the exodus or passage that Jesus was going to accomplish in Jerusalem, His suffering and death in other words. How odd in a fashion this coming together of the Lord’s future humiliation and denigration on the cross with his present fullness of glory!

What is the meaning of this mystery for Jesus' three favored disciples, and what is its meaning for us, also favored disciples? To begin our reflection, it is important to connect this event of the Transfiguration with the significant events that immediately precede it in Luke’s gospel. Jesus asked the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, speaking both for himself and the others replied without hesitation: “The Messiah of God”, i.e. the anointed leader God had promised . Whereupon Jesus surprises and astonishes them all when he rebukes them, and says that he, the Son of Man will suffer much, be put to death and be raised on the third day.

Jesus’ transformation into glory on the mountain top and conversation with Moses and Elijah wonderfully confirms these two truths about Jesus, so apparently contradictory: that He is the Messiah but, contrary to all expectations, He will be a suffering Messiah.

The three favored disciples, Peter, James and John, whom Jesus takes with Him to witness His glory are the same three disciples who will shortly witness His agony and sadness in the Garden of Gethsemane as He is overcome with anguish and distress. It is interesting also that in both episodes the three fall asleep in the face of such great mysteries. Perhaps they represent ourselves, who are not fully awake to the reality and meaning of Christ’s suffering and glorification. 

As Jesus enters into the depth of his prayer He is profoundly transformed. His beautiful face marvelously changes, as Matthew recounts, and shines like the sun. His clothing becomes dazzlingly white. The divine glory of the person of Jesus, hidden till now under the veil of His mortal flesh and human condition, bursts forth in unimaginable light and splendor. It is a radiance and glory that originates not from the outsid, but from within. But Jesus is not alone in his glory; Moses, who symbolizes the Law, and Elijah, who represents the prophets, appear with Jesus. They are speaking with Jesus about the coming events of His exodus or His suffering and death to occur shortly in Jerusalem. At this point a cloud descends upon the three disciples, who have awakened and experienced the Lord’s shining glory. A voice comes from the cloud saying: “this is my chosen Son, listen to him.” These extraordinary words recall the similar words spoken to Jesus with His baptism at the Jordan: “You are my beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” Truly Jesus is affirmed as the very Son of God.

What was the meaning of the Transfiguration for Peter, James and John, and what is its meaning for all of us today? For the three chosen disciples, the experience of the Lord’s Transfiguration was a threefold blessing. First of all, it wonderfully strengthened their faith in Jesus as God’s Messiah, as Peter had proclaimed earlier. More than that, however, it was a unique revelation of the divinity of Jesus. For not only did the splendor and radiance of the divine shine out from the face and clothing of Jesus, but the Father’s voice from the cloud acknowledged Him as his Son. Secondly, the vision of Jesus in His glory served to prepare the disciples for the approaching suffering and scandalous death of Jesus on the cross, as He had foretold to Peter and the others. It was intended as an antidote against the inevitable shattering of the disciples’ faith in Jesus and hope in His kingdom.

Finally, the Transfiguration joined together for the disciples the suffering and death of Jesus, on the one hand, and His exaltation and glorification, on the other. It served to help the disciples understand the role of Jesus as Messiah, not as that of a political and conquering hero, but as a suffering servant, who would enter into His glory through His suffering, death and resurrection.

The preface for the Mass today expresses this truth well when it states: “Jesus wanted to teach his disciples through the Law and the prophets that the promised Christ had first to suffer and so come to the glory of His resurrection. Last, but not least, we may ask : what is the meaning of the Lord’s Transfiguration for all of us, chosen disciples of the Lord, also? It is a triple grace and blessing. The Transfiguration of the Lord into glory should wonderfully strengthen and confirm our faith in Jesus, not only as the Messiah or Christ, but as the all-beautiful and chosen Son of God. The Transfiguration should enable us to have greater strength and encouragement in the time of our crosses, sufferings and death, and be an antidote for discouragement and depression. For in its light, we can understand more fully that by sharing in the sufferings and death of Jesus now, we will one day share in His divine splendor and glory.

Thirdly, the Transfiguration of Jesus should fill our hearts with great joy and expectation as a sign and foreshadowing of the immense joy we will taste in heaven. We will gaze upon the all-beautiful face of Jesus in a manner that will far surpass the joy that the three disciples tasted on the mountain top.

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